Tag Archives: performance management

Targets and wholes

The following post is written by Rob Warwick. Rob works in areas of strategic change in the UK’s National Health Service. He is particularly interested in how policy makes its way from Government to the front line. This is currently the area of research for his doctorate with the Complexity Management Centre at the University of Hertfordshire.

There has been much talk in the UK press recently about spending cuts to curb public expenditure as a result of the recent economic downturn.  Politicians talk of 5%, 10% 15% cuts – conveniently rounded numbers.  What is absent is the detail of how this will or could play out.  Whichever government comes to power after the general election is likely to take these rough (but neatly rounded) percentage figures and turn them into targets, budgets, action plans and the like.  It reminded me of a book by Michael Barber called Instruction to Deliver, retelling his account of how he led Tony Blair’s “Delivery Unit” after the 2001 General Election.  A book comes with a new word “Deliverology” and a “Delivery Manual” at the end.  I don’t intend to write a book review here, but I would simply like to point out how little the actual experience of the practitioner (the teacher, nurse, or even the manager) features.  Take for example the then Health Secretary’s (Alan Milburn)  mission: “He was very clear what his task was –  to drive through the reforms, take on the vested interests, bring in private sector providers …and build on … choice … to ensure results were met” (Barber, 2007, p132).  No mention of what was valued by nurses or doctors as practitioners whose job it was to make people better. Continue reading


The tyranny of targets and performance measures

John Seddon’s book Systems Thinking in the Public Sector is a well-written and powerful reminder of the limitations of targets and performance measures in public services. Targets, he argues oblige managers to pay attention to the wrong things, what politicians require rather than what local service users need and this leads to perverse consequences. Targets prevent staff from dealing with the variety of what they encounter by obliging them to serve inflexible and predetermined rules which have been set by someone else sitting outside the situation that local staff and managers are dealing with. Targets and performance measures arise out of an ideology of control and a pessimistic assessment of public sector staff: that if civil servants are not standing over them with exacting standards then somehow they won’t do their jobs properly. It has resulted in what he describes as an army of bureaucrats whose job it is to specify, inspect and report compliance on targets and measures which are driving public services away from what the public really wants and needs. In these ways this approach has contributed hugely to waste and cost.

He describes the difficulty he has had of getting many of his ideas accepted because setting targets has become axiomatic – to suggest that setting targets is the cause of many of the problems rather than the solution to the problems is to present oneself as being eccentric. Seddon points to the ways in which other ungrounded  idelogical obsessions, that consumer ‘choice’ is the best way to develop services, that IT is always a cheaper option, that the private sector will always deliver a better deal for service users, have come to dominate decision-making and management in the public sector. Continue reading

Performance as improvisation

In previous posts I have pointed to some of the difficulties that arise in the not-for-profit sector of importing management methods from the private sector uncritically. I have been suggesting that the imperatives of for-profit organisations are much narrower than for those organisations that are founded to do good with and for others. The ‘otherness’ of others and the importance of processes of mutual recognition immediately problematise any attempt to see social development, education or even health care simply in terms of the technical provision of services. The attempt to portray the process of social development using the ubiquitous word ‘delivery’ conjures up the image of passive recipients of pre-packaged philanthropy. I have tried to argue instead that the intentions of the institution and the needs and perspectives of organisational beneficiaries have to be construed in terms of their inherent mutual tension if the furtherance of the objectives of the organisation are not to be experienced by beneficiaries as a form of domination. As I have expressed it previously, the question might need to be ‘how does my vision and mission fit with the needs of this villager’, rather than ‘how do the needs of this villager fit with my organisational vision and mission.’ Equally, with the process of performance management I would like to suggest alternative ways for managers in not-for-profit organisations to think about what it is they are doing with their employees when they are trying to assess how well they are doing while doing good, in Moss Kanter’s phrase (1987).

In doing so I am trying to develop a richer understanding of what we might mean by the word ‘performance’ and its relationship to a more nuanced appreciation of social practice. In order to do so it it has to be linked to the  more complex concept of time (that I have set out below) than that suggested by an if-then causality, and shows how context makes such a big contribution to what is possible. It also means reintroducing the manager and practitioner back into the field of practice and to understand how power and values make a considerable contribution to what happens in the interactions between people. KPIs, the Log frame Apporach , project cycle management, and performance management as currently undertaken in most organisations assume that employees have considerable power to design social change and to contribute to it in predictable ways. The job of management then is to encourage and motivate employees to fulfil these predictions, taking a more or less coercive attitude to those employees who fail to fulfil them. This way of thinking privileges the idea of the individual as a decontextualised and rational actor and places an increasing emphasis on achieving ‘results’. Whilst I would in no way want to suggest that achieving results is unimportant, I do want to put forward the idea that we cannot always be clear about what it is we are achieving, particularly as our intentions collide with those of others. I also want to argue that we constantly reinterpret with others what it is that we think we are doing, and it is possible that we might consider this week a failure what we thought of last year as a success.

Currently managers in organisations understand themselves to be people who can design an appropriate series of interventions to achieve a particular social transformation, which logically and rationally tee up particular activities and ‘behaviours’ on the part of their employees to achieve them. The idea of managing performance in this way of seeing the world could be reduced in caricatured form to a series of sticks and carrots to bend employees to the plan that was originally conceived, even to the degree of their every day behaviour with others. If organisations take money from large funders and work through other smaller organisations, as many international development NGOs do, then these ‘partners’ in turn need to be kept on the predetermined track and ‘held accountable’ for their part in achieving it. ‘Performance’ in these circumstances can tend towards conformity, which is ironic in those social projects which also claim to be striving for innovation. Management practice is conceived as a series of interventions to ‘close the gap’ between the expected outcome and the actual achievements, to correct progress towards the anticipated model of change.

The alternative view of agency and practice that I have been setting out in previous posts would understand the management process to be a product of the social milieu, the habitus, from which it emerges. So, the generalised tendency to produce ambitious and idealised strategies for social transformation by NGOs are very much a product of 20th and  early 21st centuries, where philanthropy is highly marketised, and there is a strong belief in management methods based in systemic understandings of social change. The use of rational management theory is often accompanied by an appeal by way of employees’ values to the moral mission of not-for-profits in order to generate employee excitement and commitment. However, in my view, when taking up objectives derived from the strategy employees will be obliged, in pursuing them, to improvise with those they interact with. This is partly because the habitus of each different context will be different, particularly if the organisation has programmes overseas, but partly also because the meaning of the employee’s action can only be understood once their social counterparts have acted in response. In the gesture and response between the employee acting with intention and those they interact with a patterning of social action will arise, the exact outcome of which is unpredictable. The organisation’s objectives and the way the employee takes them up is not the only game in town.

Management intervention according to this way of understanding action would be to try and make sense with the employee of what has arisen as a result of them acting with intention, and to help them understand their own part in the game they are playing. How have they contributed to the patterning of gesture and response, and how has it affected them in their actions?

Tying ourselves up in knots – performance management

This posting examines the thinking that underpins the idea of performance management

A number of not-for-profits have  adopted from the private sector the practice of setting Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, not just for one aspect of the work they are undertaking, but as a means of assessing the activities of the entire organisation. There is a tendency also to construe these as specifiable in advance and quantifiable, reducing the work of the organisation to things that can be counted, and are therefore ‘measurable’. Although there is nothing wrong with counting things, this can sometimes be a poor and reduced substitute for assessing the quality of interventions which are aimed at bringing about social development with people. In previous posts I have been suggesting that when we work together we begin to understand what it is we are trying to achieve differently: even a few weeks into a development project we can begin to understand how limited was our original understanding of what we thought we were going to do.

Exactly the same kind of thinking underpins standard management practice across all organisational sectors in the management of individuals, a process which has come to be known as ‘performance management’. Just as the management of the work is construed as being subject to laws of predictability and control, so staff, as agents acting to further the work are appraised according to their ability to fulfil individual and group objectives which nest within organisational objectives. Most not-for-profits have established supervisory processes where managers will sit down with their line management reports and establish annual work objectives for which staff members are then ‘held accountable’. Personal objectives are thought to be logically derived from organisational objectives. As the Harvard Business Essentials guide to performance management (2006) puts it:

Every company, every operating unit, and every employee needs goals and plans for achieving them…The real power of these cascading goals is their alignment with the purposes of the organisation. Every employee in this arrangement should understand his or her goals, how assigned activities advance the goals of the unit, and how the unit’s activities contribute to the strategic objective of the enterprise. Thus, goal alignment focuses all the energy of the business on the things that matter most. (2006: 5)

This is an excellent example of systems thinking, which takes for granted organisation as whole, where individual performance management is a logical extension of setting organisational objectives. All staff members are to align themselves with the organisational mission within a linear concept of time (see the posting on different theories of time below). The suggestion is that the organisational course is pre-determined, and therefore managerial intervention should be aimed at correcting the activities of staff to keep them ‘on track’. The behaviour of individual members of staff are supposed to be visible at a distance by senior managers. Depending on the degree of sophistication of the performance management process, not-for-profits sometimes develop criteria which claim to assess competences, sometimes expressed in the term ‘behaviours’, a word derived from cognitive psychology, which lay claim to being objective measures of gauging staff performance. These behaviours and competences are in turn sub-systems of individual performance which can be gauged and measured.

I have encountered a frequent complaint from staff in organisations who feel that the annual encounter over the fulfilment of objectives is a lifeless and pointless exercise. Often the job has moved on and changed so much that the objectives are no longer relevant. Rather than focusing on what the worker is doing, the conversation hinges on the question as to why previously set objectives have not been achieved.

I have one organisation’s performance management process in front of me, which I will anonymise, and which identifies five ‘behaviours and attributes’ which are supposed to be logically derived from the organisation’s vision and mission. These are commitment, creativity, communication, collaboration and thinking. It is an interesting indication of the self-replicating and hegemonic intentions of such performance management schemes that in this particular example staff can show commitment by their acceptance of the performance management process: “Commitment: Demonstrates strong belief in the values that underpin X organisation. “Walks the talk”, prepared for performance to be measured by these values”.

To perform well means that you have to be prepared to be judged to perform well according to performance management criteria.

In an environment where there is competition between not-for-profits for funds, or where there is a greater focus on how tax revenues are being translated into public services, managers in such organisations are legitimately asking themselves how they can invite their employees to contribute to making a greater difference to the work that the organisation is attempting to do. However, the dominant way of thinking which frames this invitation is conditioned by the belief in control and alignment with pre-determined objectives. At the same time that employees are encouraged to align and conform, they are also, and perhaps ironically, invited to be creative and innovative.

I suggest this as a kind of double bind given that the idea of innovation and creativity suggests elements of surprise and the unexpected which management methods based in concepts of predictably and control seem intent on managing away. Performance management can feel like tying ourself up in knots.

Performance as social practice

One way of thinking about the way we act socially is that we are born into a world where there is already a play going on. The play arises out of a history of social interaction and creates ways of speaking and acting which condition the way that new actors can speak and act. The way we express ourselves, indeed the very way we think about ourselves, is entirely shaped by the play that we join and the actions and speech of others. Our sense of self arises in our ability to respond to others who are also conditioned by the social circumstances that we experience together. Social relationships hinge on an array of taken-for-granted practices which are largely invisible to us because we are already acculturated by them. We are not consciously following rules, nor are we overtly directed to behave as we do. According to Bourdieu, we would be hard pressed to define the social rules that govern our action because it is difficult for us to stand outside of ourselves: in order to do so we would need to be both the subjects and objects of study, which we can only partially achieve:

Caught up in the matter in hand, totally present in the present and in the practical functions that it finds there in the form of objective potentialities, practice excludes attention to itself (that is, to the past). It is unaware of the principles that govern it and the possibilities they contain; it can only discover them by enacting them, unfolding them in time. (The Logic of Practice, 1990: 92)

In Bourdieu’s terms, the functioning of habitus lies between overt determinism, where all our actions are simply conditioned by our inherited dispositions, and the god-like agency of rational free will that is implied by many contemporary management theories. Action is probable and broadly predictable within certain parameters, but not certain since we are responding to a different set of circumstances each time we act. How we will act, though, is ultimately unknowable until we have acted with others and interpreted that action.

This way of understanding social action is very different from many ‘performance management’ processes in organisations where there is a presumption that we are in control of our bodies and our actions, and that what we do is a product of our conscious and rational application. We conceive of what we are going to do, and then we do it, or more likely in organisations, senior managers set objectives which are then fulfilled by employees. Performance management becomes a process of correcting employees’ efforts towards the ideal path that has already been rationally chosen.

Another way of understanding ‘performance’ would be to conceive of it as the necessary improvisation that employees will be obliged to perform as they take up generalised objectives in their particular context. As they try to act with intention they will find themselves behaving in particular ways, simply because of the way they have been acculturated, and will be obliged to respond to others in an improvisational dance. In this situation, what the employee is trying to achieve is not the only thing going on, particularly if they are trying to achieve things with and through others. A manager might be concerned not just with whether the employee has achieved ‘results’ but how they interacted with others in the process and what happened as a consequence. Outcomes of improvisation are likely to be probable, rather than certain. In soliciting from the employee what has happened as a result of them acting with intention, it may make the dance they have become involved with much more explicit. In taking up the challenge of meeting their objectives they may have come across more important things to be doing than what was presupposed. This could be more innovative and important than the strategy that was being attempted.

We could come to understand the word ‘accountability’ to be the way that employees give an account of what they have done and why, rather than simply giving an account of whether they have hit a particular target or not. If managers tend towards taking a greater interest in means as well as ends, focusing on both might affect the ends themselves.